Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Civilization Evolution

It took me a while to get into the Civilization series. I missed out on Civ 1 and Civ 2, even though those games came out when I was well into my nacent computer gaming years. Perhaps they weren't flashy enough, but when I stumbled across Civilization III I was hooked. Civilization IV was more of the same, though with interesting refinements; the expansion packs broadened some of the diplomatic and strategic options such as using spies and conducting sabotage, but its core game mechanics didn't feel like they had changed much since Civilization III.

Civilization V, on the other hand, keeps the core elements of Civ but alters the balance of some core mechanics significantly. Fundamentally, Civ V streamlines the game and makes it easier to approach and play, but this doesn't detract from either replayability nor the fun of the game itself. In fact, I felt like the game proceeded more logically and I enjoyed myself as much or more than I did in previous Civilization titles. If you've never experienced the series before, this is an excellent time to join the party; if you're an experienced Civilization addict, then you'll still love this game, but you'll have to play a game or two in order to digest the changes.

The most noticable change for previous players is the inability to "stack" multiple units on a single tile. This simple change alters the invasion dynamics and also makes it much simpler to evaluate, at a glance, how powerful a given attack is. Gone are the days of a spearman, along with 15 tank divisions, appearing on your map on the same tile. Now, if you can see a unit on a hex, you know that you are facing that unit alone.

That said, when you see 15 or 20 units marching across your borders, you can also tell you're in for a whole world of pain. The loss of stacking also means that there is a greater premium placed on using strong units for both defense and attack instead of crowds of weaker units, as well as on planning your attacks appropriately. Properly planning waves of attacks, and the proper use of siege units such as catapults and cannons, is vital to your success in a conflict.

Such tactics are particularly important when attacking cities, since all cities are now capable of defending themselves even if there is no unit garrisoned in them. Every city has an attack radius around it, so units can take damage even while moving into position and continue to take damage as long as the city remains free. However, cities can attack only one unit at a time, so the use of multiple units in the attack can blunt some of the damage, but any unit garrisoned in the city can also attack. Fortunately, the other major design change was to a hexagonial grid layout instead of the previous squares, meaning that surrounding other units and cities is a much simpler affair; as such, unit movement and tactics play a much greater role in Civ V, instead of just throwing heaps of units at a city and calling it a day.

I should point out that while Civ V has made some interesting and much-needed improvements to the Civilization formula, it is still riddled with some perplexing design choices. For one, the game now includes "City States", which are an evolution of the barbarian cities present in earlier games (and still present in Civ V, though as isolated fortified barbarian headquarters). Essentially City States serve as neutral single-city civilizations that can help you if you bribe them or attack you if you persecute them. While I understand the choice to add them to the game, the implementation leaves something to be desired. I would have preferred that there be an option to peacefully add them to your empire as something other than "puppet" states, much like you could absorb other civilizations cities wholesale in Civ IV, but that option doesn't exist. You are forced to either bribe the city states with money or protection, but have no control over what they produce.

You can also conquer them and turn them into puppets, which robs you of production control, or conquer them outright and add them to your empire which results in major discontent problems and pisses off the other city-states. The fundamental issue is that City States, while helpful in the early game wind up being annoying obstacles that you'll find yourself wanting to devour out of sheer annoyance; politically this can be something of a catastrophe. The city states are also often inconveniently located, resulting in divided empires if you forget to buy them off or don't conquer them. Overall, city-states are an idea with promise that I hope will be refined in the future, preferably through some short-term patches. As it stands, you can simply turn them off in the starting screen, but I think efforts by Firaxis to refine and expand their importance would be well worth their time.

The addition of maintenance costs for roads is a nice solution to the problem of the comically excessive road and railroad building that occurred in the earlier Civilizations, but I had a hell of a time dealing with the economics in Civ V. The upkeep costs for buildings, units and infrastructure kept me cash-strapped throughout the game, unless I was in a Golden Age. I also had a lot of trouble understanding how to use certain units, such as Great Generals, since they no longer appeared to confer many of the advantages granted by the Great Generals in Civilization IV.

Again, these are minor gameplay issues, but ones that could and should have been sorted out before release. In fairness, there is a patch pending (UPDATE: The patch has been released, addressing some of the balance issues and glitches in the economic model) that may resolve many of these issues, particularly some of the problems with excessive unit maintenance costs and a numer of other minor, but irritating, problems and some major issues that I was fortunate enough to either not encounter or not notice.

Civ V also greatly enhances the aesthetics of the diplomacy screens, but the underlying mechanics seem to have gotten worse. Other civilizations would get angry at me for no reason I could discern, wouldn't accept reasonable trade offers, and generally were highly erratic. Perplexingly, the option to sell or trade maps has vanished from the game, meaning that even by the late modern era, depending on map size, there could be vast portions of the world you still hadn't seen. Furthermore, I had a very hard time telling what the overall state of the my relationships with the various leaders was. In Civ IV this was a relatively straightforward color coded line graph, but in Civ V it's part of a messy and cluttered menu.

Taken as a whole, Civ V is a great game and worth your time, though you should be aware that there are some balance issues that need to be worked out and should hopefully be resolved with a patch.

The author played three complete single-player games of Civilization (multiple difficulty levels) and multiple partial single player games. No multiplayer games were played. The version played was the PC Steam version. The author crushed his enemies, saw them driven before them, and heard the lamentations of their women...except for one time when he totally got ganged up on by everyone and lost.
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